- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

The first volume of Bill Bennett’s sweeping “America: The Last Best Hope” is notable for its accessibility and memorable writing, which is no accident. This workmanlike narrative of early U.S. history is not just the artful conservative volley in the culture wars one would expect it to be (though it certainly is that; Howard Zinn would disapprove). It is also a genuine contribution to popular history, beginning like some old-fashioned textbook with Columbus and narrating the story of the United States up to the onset of World War I.

Mr. Bennett wrote the book firstly “for hope” because, as he explains, he thinks that “our conviction about American greatness and purpose is not as strong today” as it was in the age of Jefferson, Lincoln or even Kennedy. Historians, Mr. Bennett writes, have taken to describing America not just “warts and all,” as Oliver Cromwell famously put it, but “as nothing but warts.” Among the aims: “[T]o encourage a new patriotism — a new reflective, reasoned form of patriotism.” No faux objectivity here.

For more than 500 pages, at a clip of just under a year per page, Mr. Bennett writes from the perspective of a nation — not “the people” — telling the stories behind the creation of modern America. This is an act of synthesis in which Mr. Bennett relies on a range of great historians, including contemporaries like David Hackett Fischer, giants of previous eras like Samuel Eliot Morison, statesmen-authors like Winston Churchill and popular historians such as David McCullough. Synthesis frees Mr. Bennett to deliver the kind of big-picture historical analysis from which civic-minded people can draw strength.

In bursts of 30-40 pages, Mr. Bennett spins memorable tours of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian exploration of the Americas and their contact, mostly brutal, with native populations; of the arrival of Pilgrims, Puritans, Dutch, English mercantilists and others; of the entrenchment of slavery in the New World; of the American Revolution and the colonial era which preceded it; of Andrew Jackson’s ascendancy and the emergence of popular democracy; and so forth through Civil War, Reconstruction, industrialization, the Gilded Age, the age of Roosevelt and ending with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the eve of the Great War.

The brisk pace occasionally yields for the telling anecdote — like the near-torching of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home over the loathsome Stamp Act; George Washington’s several brushes with death on the battlefield; the story of Nathan Hale, the first American spy, hanged by the British in New York in 1776; the moving anti-slavery intellect of Abraham Lincoln in the 1854 Lincoln-Douglas debates; lynchings and the rise of discriminatory “black codes” in the South following the Civil War; the sinking of the Maine and the “splendid little war” that wasn’t so splendid, among other vignettes.

The culture warrior in Mr. Bennett shows up regularly. For instance, the author comes out swinging even on behalf of Christopher Columbus, whose reputation has sagged of late. Mr. Bennett finds it unfair that Columbus is tagged for the devastation of native societies wrought by Westerners and for the rise of slavery, which, he tartly observes, “was a pervasive fact of life among the Europeans, but also particularly among the Arabs, the Africans, and the Indians themselves.” The real aim here, of course, is less to defend Columbus than to vindicate the civilization, however flawed, which he represents and to detach its essence from brutal practices of the era which were widespread but not necessarily innate to the character of Western societies.

This type of thinking, at its best, reflects the memorable words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reproduced by Mr. Bennett: “Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies that are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is on balance incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have.”

Sometimes this thinking results in veneration of the history for its own sake, to which Mr. Bennett is sometimes susceptible. For instance, the author spends more than a few pages on the relatively obscure Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and McKinley, each of whom comes in for reassessment. “All these presidents have been denigrated by historians,” he writes. ” ‘Great’ they may not have been, but most countries in the world today would consider themselves blessed to have been governed by such men.”Arguable points all, but ones which Mr. Bennett probably wouldn’t feel compelled to make were he not so convinced that American history itself is under attack.

That’s forgivable, of course. Mr. Bennett’s book is a kind of antidote to the agnosticism of much contemporary history and is welcome for that reason alone.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.

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